Simple Societies or Tribal Societies are also called pre-literate societies or small scale societies or subsistence societies. The characteristics of simple societies are as follows:

1. They are small in scale because they have relatively small population spread over a limited territory.

2. They are simple in the sense that they have simple technology of hunting and food gathering variety or pastoral or shifting cultivation variety and a simple division of labour based on age and sex.

3. They have a subsistence economy in the sense that they consume what they produce, leaving very little surplus.


4. They are pre-literate in the sense that they, do not have a written language and so they lack history, written documents and developed theology. Such societies are studied mainly through observation and it is found that many of them do not have the kind of stratification based on differences of prestige, power and wealth found in Agrarian or Industrial Society. In the absence of Historical and Documentary data, it is difficult to study the characteristics of the stratification prevalent in such simple societies and so the following points have been made by Marshall Sahlins.

Sahlins says that some form of ranking is universal and so present in all societies including primitive societies there are differences based on age, sex and personal characteristics-bravery and wisdom.

He adds that most primitive societies have some form of institutionalized social inequality i.e., more than the ranking on biological and psychological basis these are societies in which social, economic and political stratification exists i.e., groups can be observed which are different in power, prestige and wealth. In this way Shalins refutes the views the nineteenth century about all the primitive societies lacking stratification and having what Marx for example called primitive communism.

Thus Shalins confines the word stratification only to those societies in which there are groups with permanent distinction of power, prestige and wealth and wants to find out the reason for the existence of such distinction.


There are many societies where those in high position enjoy privileges in production and consumption of wealth a great amount of power in inter-personal relation so that they can use sanctions against offenders, and also high social status especially in ritual and ceremonial matters. Sahlins attributes these distinctions to the process of distribution.

When primitive societies have an economy which starts generating a little surplus, it is the way in which this surplus is distributed which determines the system of stratification. In most such primitive societies the surplus is brought to a centre and then it is redistributed. This centre may consist of a chief or a council of chiefs and they derive their wealth, power and prestige from their right to redistribute the surplus. In other words, Power is a result of acting as the tribal banker who collects the surplus, stores it and then uses it for the benefit of the tribe.

Malinowski says that the principle in primitive society is for a man who owns a thing is to share with others, to distribute it, to be its trustee. He says that the greater the ability to distribute, the more power he enjoys and the more wealth he possesses. Those high in rank are expected to be generous and the higher the rank, the greater is obligation.

Malinowski study of the Trobriand Island clearly shows that prestige and power are related to the redistribution of wealth, it may also be said that production depends on the way in which resources are redistributed.


The more there is for redistribution, i.e., the more surplus the more chance there is for separation between those who produce and those who distribute. Since surplus depends upon the technical efficiency of production. It may be said that with advances in technology a social organisation emerges where there are status differences between producers and distributors. In other words, the re- distributors of surplus also acquire property rights and the right to employ those who produce for them.